When Bhutan decided to set up a counter-insurgency force, this signified a change in its strategy to deal with Indian militants present in its territory. This new strategy could have important implications for the internal security of Bhutan as well as for terrorism prevalent in the northeast of India which survives largely because of the presence of terrorist camps in the neighbouring countries. At least three terrorist groups — ULFA, National Democratic Front of Boroland and Kamtapur Liberation Organization — operate out of Bhutan. ULFA has nine camps, NDFB eight and KLO three inside Bhutan.
Initially, Bhutan adopted a four-pronged strategy to deal with these militants: persuading the militant leaders to dismantle their camps and leave the country peacefully; stopping all food and arms supplies to the camps ; preventing the Bhutanese people from extending help to the militants; and using military action as the last option.
For a long time, Bhutan considered the presence of Indian militants in its territory essentially India’s problem. A section of the Bhutanese even believed that these terrorists were unable to return because of the strict vigil maintained by the Indian forces, and accused the Indian government of being uncooperative.
Bhutan has been reluctant to use force against these militants, fearing the security of its nationals. It estimates that in the event of a military action, more than 66,000 people in 10 districts will be affected and possibly displaced. These districts are infested with militants and have a number of terrorist camps. It also thinks that the use of force against the militants will adversely affect its trade and commerce by closing all three routes with India.
The use of force always meant a joint Indo-Bhutanese operation. A joint operation also appeared necessary because Bhutan was not sure of its firepower. But such an operation made Bhutan a little uneasy as it felt that it would be compromising its sovereignty, for which it was not ready. Unwilling to do this, it has now decided to use the Royal Bhutan Army for removing the militants from Bhutanese territory if dialogue and peaceful means fail.
The Royal Bhutan Army has established 10 army camps, with about 5,000 troops, along the kingdom’s border with Assam. No doubt the Bhutanese still prefer a peaceful solution, but this time they are also prepared for all the eventualities.
Bhutan is also raising a militia and is planning to train men between the ages of 18 and 45, who would be given a three-month training by the Royal Bhutan Army. This militia will get the same remuneration and facilities as regular soldiers. To meet costs, the government is planning to raise a contingency fund. The Bhutanese king has now publicly spoken about the threat which militants pose to the security and sovereignty of Bhutan.
Tighten the noose
The Bhutanese decision to raise a militia to counter terrorists is a good decision. India stands to gain from this strategy, and can also assist in the training of Bhutan’s militia. India can further help by providing intelligence and locating terrorist training camps situated in the dense and inaccessible forests.
Anticipating that Bhutan will begin cracking down on terrorist outfits once the June 30 deadline ends, the ULFA has started preparing itself by moving arms and ammunition to areas near the India-Bangladesh border in Meghalaya. This may be because it wants to create an additional base so that it does not become defunct once the crackdown on terror begins, implying also that the ULFA will not leave Bhutan without a showdown.
Instead of extending deadlines repeatedly, if Bhutan uses force against the terrorists, they will be forced to tone down their activities, sandwiched between the armies of two nations. Also, Bhutan will set an example for countries like itself which are plagued by terrorism.